Written by Morgan Aprill
“A sudden bell rang in the house—the prayer-bell. Instantly into our alley there came, out of the berceau, an apparition, all black and white. With a sort of angry rush—close, close past our faces—swept swiftly the very NUN herself! Never had I seen her so clearly. She looked tall of stature, and fierce of gesture. As she went, the wind rose sobbing; the rain poured wild and cold; the whole night seemed to feel her” (392).
The ghostly image of a nun described in the quote above comes from Villette (1853), a novel by Charlotte Brontë. The book’s protagonist, Lucy Snowe, believes the nun to be the ghost of a woman who had supposedly been buried alive at the foot of a tree outside the school. At first, this ghost appears in the attic of the school and only Lucy sees her. The other characters make fun of her and are skeptical of Lucy’s vision. However, she sees the nun other times in the novel, and later on her friend M. Paul does as well.
The image comes to represent Lucy’s questioning of her own burgeoning sexuality, something she tried to keep closed off. The Rue Fossette, the name of the school where she works, was once a convent where women who had given a vow of chastity resided and dedicated their lives to God. The story behind the ghostly nun that haunts Lucy tells of a young nun who was cruelly punished for some transgression against her vows: “The legend went, unconfirmed and unaccredited, but still propagated, that this was the portal of a vault, imprisoning deep beneath that ground, on whose surface grass grew and flowers bloomed, the bones of a girl whom a monkish conclave of the drear middle ages had here buried alive for some sin against her vow” (107-108).
One of the possible transgressions made by this nun is connected to a break in her vow of chastity, and we see Lucy struggle with her own sexuality throughout the novel. Lucy begins to see the ghost just as she develops potentially romantic relationships with Dr. John and M. Paul, and Lucy works very hard to prevent herself from acting out in ways a woman should not. The first time she sees the nun is when she is alone in the attic, reading a letter from Dr. John. She is overcome with her feelings for him, and soon after she sees the nun who represents the punishment women could expect if they let their romantic feelings get out of hand. She later confronts Dr. John about seeing this image, and he warns her not to tell of her vision to others. He talks of how he is working to restrain his love for Ginevra Fanshawe, a coquette in the school, connecting Lucy’s vision even more with the struggle to restrain sexuality. Again, as she takes the letters that she had been coveting from Dr. John and buries them near the tree under which the nun is said to be buried, the nun appears to her, representative of Lucy’s struggle with her feelings for Dr. John and later M. Paul.
As she does with the crazy woman in the attic in Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë is using this element of the supernatural to comment on the state of women during the time period. A woman’s sexuality was to be repressed and punished, but it was always there, lurking like a ghost—or a monster in the attic.
Brontë, Charlotte. Villette. 1853. New York: Bantam Dell, 2007. Print.